In 2008 the Wenchuan Earthquake in Sichuan province, China killed at least 68 thousand people. The epicentre was in the mountains but the force of the event spread far enough to be felt in other countries. With a seismic event of that magnitude, it was recognised that the extent of the damage would be terrible.
The scientific information arrived quickly, but the human elements were so quiet through international media. That’s not a criticism, it’s something that happened. The plain fact was that reporters would not get anywhere near the centre and the areas most damaged had their communications knocked out. Getting information in and out of affected areas was going to be slow via traditional means and this could cost lives as well as increasing panic and concern around the world as the families and friends of those in Chengdu and other places were unable to find out if their loved ones were alive.
Haiti has faced a similar situation. The entire communications network came down as the latest earthquake wreaked havoc. The initial news had been released but the important, personal details were impossible to collect by regular methods.
In both cases, satellite and internet communications brought forward the fastest updates and connections I had ever seen. In China, volunteers and teachers were accessing the web and putting out word via Twitter. While the TV crews and mainstream reporters were unable to gain access due to safety issues, people were on-line, telling us what was happening just minutes after the initial tremors. If these people were on-line to use Twitter, it was possible that they could be found using Skype or other voice over internet methods and soon a picture of lives disrupted was being created.
One of the outstanding things about these stories for me was that they all came from alternative sources. These were not practised presenters creating a summary of events, they were not people who had just arrived and had to pull together what little information was available. They were the lives lived in that location, they understood fully the impact and the horror of having a neighbourhood torn apart. They had heard the peaceful ambience before and could compare the disastrous clamour afterwards, their knowledge exceeded that of the media many times and their choices of stories to tell were revealing what was important to those communities.
I’m not at all against reporters summarising and creating our news reports. These are practised professional story tellers, they know what is vital to an audience, but at this time, my news was broken from the inside and it was more moving and vital than I had heard before.
In Haiti people were uploading via satellite internet connections. The immediate realisation of the urgency to get that information out was so fast. Individuals were distributing personal satellite phone numbers so that loved ones and news outlets far away could make contact and spread the word worldwide.
These people don’t have to do any of this. They could be wandering the streets, or getting into dangerous areas to find others caught in fallen structures. The division of labour and organisation in these situations humbles me. The knowledge that something simple, like setting up a communications hub in a disaster could bring reassurance to millions of people via one satellite mobile set up. To tell the right stories. That to me is both moving and incredible in its nature.
Self organisation on-line via web pages with message boards, translators working for free, constant updates, images, video and more importantly human voices spread around the world to send the message when things are definitely not okay. That connected society seems a long way away from Tim Berners Lee’s initial network. But it shows to me what people can do with something designed for one purpose that utterly changes in a different situation.
Admittedly, in many ways, networks of on-line society are very small. Though the media hype is that everyone should be on Twitter – they’re not. It’s a small percentage of the world, but it’s just enough to make a difference and it’s growing.
So, for those who want to tell me as a journalist that twitter is narrow casting and blogs are a waste of time. Please let me know how best to help people far away, to learn about what is happening to them by traditional means? Those habits that seems so inconsequential when you’re talking about your regular daily activities. Those innovations by 17 year old computer kids stuck in their room all day, making things that seem stupid or weird. These things can become transmitters for the most powerful and moving human stories in mainstream news organisations all over the world.
That chain of communication is what brings those bulletin reports at the end of the day to your TV set. And its because a few individuals make the choice to try those silly things and turn them into something amazing.